The Black Vote: Deserting the Democrats

It's familiarly argued, particularly by white Democrats who covet black votes, that only major parties can win national power, and therefore African-Americans' interests are best served by continued loyalty to the Democratic Party. Black voters help the Democrats to win elections -- sometimes, anyway -- and the Democrats claim to be more sympathetic to African-American interests than are the Republicans. That's been their claim since the thirties, when the Depression, the economic promise of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, Eleanor Roosevelt's advocacy of their concerns and F.D.R.'s executive order barring racial discrimination in military industries and the federal government lured blacks en masse out of the party of Lincoln. (Roosevelt's hand was forced by A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Randolph had threatened to lead 100,000 black demonstrators in a march on Washington if the President did not sign the executive order.) Blacks' new allegiance was cemented by the desegregation of the armed forces and by civil rights legislation pushed by non-Southern Democrats in the administrations of Truman, Kennedy and Johnson. As integration faltered after 1966, however, and white backlash mounted, the Republicans were permitted to define racial issues, usually by denigrating what they described as black behavior-out-of-wedlock births, crime, and welfare dependency -- in order to win white political support. Little attention was paid by either party to blacks' economic needs or, in consequence, to those of poor whites. As a predictable result, whites mostly voted Republican, blacks stayed largely with the less hostile Democrats and the poor of both races stayed poor and often got poorer.Black support for Democrats in recent decades has been a mixed blessing, however, since the party consistently lost presidential elections, not least because African-Americans and their party had become so closely identified with each other. The last Democratic presidential candidate to carry a majority of the nation's white males -- who cast a massive number of votes -- was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Recognizing this "image" problem, white Democrats have sought to "move to the center," trying to suppress race and placing emphasis on other issues the Republicans have already claimed: the "middle class," tax cuts, crime and the like. Blacks loyal to the party have had little choice but to go along with this Democratic de-emphasis of their interests. Even this copycat strategy did not work nationally until 1992, however, when a lagging economy, George Bush's political ineptitude and Ross Perot's weird candidacy helped put Bill Clinton in the White House...barely. By then, both parties had effectively abandoned integration as national policy, beyond what had already been achieved (and even that came under fire in the Reagan/Bush administrations). Neither party pressed hard for further racial gains or pushed for enforcement of what had been done, and both treated racial aspirations largely as a patronage problem to be handled by Cabinet appointments and other political spoils. Most important, neither party was willing or professed to see the necessity to mount an attack on the economic trends that had created the inner-city ghetto and that were also keeping many whites and non-ghetto blacks in poverty and hopelessness. Thus, today's uneasy alliance between African-Americans and the Democratic Party of Clinton is a world apart from the sixties coalition of non-Southern Democrats and civil rights leaders. Then, a realizable goal -- desegregation in the South -- was shared on both sides. Today, the alliance stands for little of real benefit to blacks. For this and other reasons, an early repudiation of the Democratic Party by African-Americans would be in their own and the nation's interest. That would provide a base and a platform for a radical new party that might revive racial integration and enlarge economic opportunity for poor Americans of all races.Such a new political party might well be based on: 1) the growth of what are now called minority groups; 2) the existing nucleus of liberals or nonconservatives; 3) as many poor whites as can be persuaded, for reasons of economic interest, to cooperate politically across racial lines; 4) some of those millions of Americans of all races who no longer take part in the two-party system or in politics at all.Halfway through the twenty-first century, the U.S. population will be about evenly divided between non-Hispanic whites and the so-called minority groups.The Census Bureau estimates that by then 34 million Asians, 61 million blacks (compared to 33 million today) and 97 million Hispanics will be living in the United States. California and Texas, two of the three largest states, will soon have white minorities; and today's overall minority population is going to quadruple.There is no reason to expect that all these added millions, even the non-Hispanic whites, will be conservatives on the Newt Gingrich model -- particularly not if there's a plausible alternative. And though it's certainly to be hoped that not all will be living in poverty, if present trends don't change much, many will be poor and ill educated. So the potential seems to exist for a third party to tap into a swiftly rising population likely to encounter some degree of economic and racial disadvantage, hence to favor the economic change I believe prerequisite to social justice and racial integration. If a new political party primarily composed of today's and tomorrow's disadvantaged Americans is to make a real difference, however, often jealous or hostile minorities will have to be brought into political cooperation. An even more vexing problem will be the demonstrated reluctance of poor whites to make common cause with African-Americans. But the campaigns of Jesse Jackson have shown that such difficult coalitions sometimes can be built, even on a national scale; and the common problems of poor whites and minorities -- joblessness, lack of opportunity, inadequate education, health care, nutrition and housing, indifferent police protection -- will persist and forge common interests more compelling every year. As for the nonvoters, their political potential is unlimited but hard to develop. In 1994 only 38.8 percent of those eligible to vote, in one of the bitterest and most publicized campaigns in years, were moved to do so. Since 1962 not once have as many as half of those eligible to vote done so in a nonpresidential election; and little more than 50 percent have cast a ballot even when the presidency has been at stake.Millions of voting-age Americans are not even registered and evince no interest whatever in the nation's politics. Some substantial percentage of these almost surely consists of those Americans shown by the Statistical Abstract of the United States for 1994 to have been living in poverty in 1992: 24.5 million whites (11.6 percent of all whites), 10.6 million blacks (33.3 percent of all blacks) and 6.7 million Hispanics (29.3 percent of all Hispanics). That's about 40 million people (14 percent of the total) living in poverty.Many of these poor Americans apparently see no reason to take part in a political system they believe never benefits them, in which they believe they have no real stake and in which they can observe far more concern being devoted to the rich and the middle class. A political bonanza surely awaits the party that can lure a significant percentage of these nonvoters to the polls.By racial integration, I don't mean a black-white amalgamation in which all ethnic and economic distinctions would be extinguished. I certainly do not mean the smothering of a distinctive black culture or its absorption into some misconceived melting pot. Racial integration means to me, rather, a situation in which blacks, whites and others live together in amity, respecting one another's history and culture, in a society in which the races have equal, and equally observed, legal rights -- a society in which one race is not threatened by another, nor has to claim preferential treatment in order to thrive economically.Applied to racial relations in the United States today, that description fails in every particular. Whites, for only one example, historically have enjoyed overwhelmingly preferential treatment; what was it but a preference for whites when blacks were not even allowed to apply? Now many African-Americans, as a consequence of centuries of deprivation, temporarily need some forms of countervailing preference if they are to meet educational and economic standards set by whites. But Democrats as well as Republicans now accuse blacks of unfairly being "given" preferences by government; both are backing away from anything smacking of affirmative action or other forms of aid to the disadvantaged, and are adopting increasingly punitive approaches.The kind of society described above, however, is not likely to be achieved or even sought by mainstream parties that follow rather than lead social trends in a population that for years has been turning its back on racial integration. Both Republicans and Democrats owe allegiance to financially supportive, aggressively conservative business interests.Consequently, both parties in recent decades have been instruments of the status quo, not of change, certainly not radical change; and neither will urge the kind of economic reform poor African-Americans and poor whites alike need if they are ever to approach economic equality and social justice in America.Why, for instance, should African-Americans support a President who gave strong backing to a crime bill featuring more death penalties, more prisons to incarcerate more blacks, more police rather than more economic opportunity, and a punitive measure called "three strikes, you're out"? After the Democratic debacle in 1994 Clinton hastily dealt himself into the Republicans' tax-cutting game, which won't help the ghetto; and neither he nor any leading Democrat has put forward an economic idea more radical than Republican Jack Kemp's flawed "enterprise zones" proposal or even as radical as the guaranteed annual income sponsored by Richard Nixon a quarter-century ago.Both established political parties (the Republicans more candidly) have failed to address the deepest needs of African-Americans and of the poor generally. Instead, they have presided over years of grudging desegregation and white backlash; white and corporate blindness to blacks' and poor whites' economic disadvantages; inequitable tax policies; a deteriorating wage structure; underclass growth, increased crime and rising fear of crime; white flight from a decaying public school system and middle-class abandonment of the inner city; the decline and only partial recovery of the manufacturing sector; and massive layoffs of working Americans, black and white, both blue- and white-collar, by hugely profitable companies and their highly paid executives.Those layoffs are too often "necessary" for the bottom line, not for economic survival. Corporate profits rose to record levels in 1994: 11 percent, after an even better rise of 13 percent in 1993. Yet corporate layoffs continued at a pace approaching or exceeding that of the early nineties recession: half a million jobs in 1994, compared with only 316,047 in 1990 and 555,292 in 1991. No African-American and no poor American should be embarrassed, much less feel disloyal, in deciding to turn away from such a record and the mainstream parties that either condoned or compiled it. And if the Democrats lose even more elections as a result, it will be chargeable less to black defections than to the party's cynical slighting of African-American interests.In the United States, political power flows from economic power, not the other way around. Witness the influence in Washington and the state capitals of great economic concentrations, as well as the contribution lists of the political action committees that largely pay the huge costs of politics. With rare exceptions, those concentrations and committees do not include African-Americans. It follows that they do not have much real political power, no matter how many mayors or city councilmen they elect. To attain such power, African-Americans must build a new political party that will seek economic reform and the greater political influence that economic gain would bring to the currently powerless. The new party's first principle, therefore, must be the nearly forgotten idea of full employment.As things are now, owing to technology and cheap-labor competition, many Americans whose jobs have recently been eliminated, as well as many who for years have had no jobs, will never work again. Millions of all races, like blacks in the inner city today, will be idle, poverty-stricken, likely to become public charges. In the ugly British usage, these people, again like today's inner-city blacks, will be "redundant," unneeded waste material.Official unemployment dropped just below 6 percent in late 1994, but in most recent years it has run regularly above that level and just as regularly has been about twice as high for African-Americans as for whites. And the official jobless rate doesn't include those discouraged millions who have dropped out of the labor force.A rising tide, however, as President Kennedy liked to say, lifts all boats; and if economic opportunity and job security could be expanded, not just African-Americans but the working class in general would benefit. Economic gains for all -- the expansion of the economic pie -- would become the glue to hold together a new coalition, even across racial lines, of those now excluded from political power and social equality.Full employment, moreover, allowing only for some necessary (but much lower than 6 percent) level of unemployment, is not unattainable. More jobs, productive jobs, can be created to redeem gaping holes in the infrastructure -- crumbling highways, bridges and city streets. A foolishly abandoned rail network needs rebuilding. Adequate environmental protections would expand, not contract, job opportunities. Vast numbers of structures need insulating; these installations would conserve energy as well as provide jobs.Such projects, on the scale necessary, would increase the federal deficit in the short run. But they would be an investment in the long run, increasing economic activity, expanding taxpayer rolls, lessening welfare expenditures and decreasing the costs of crime and punishment, thus lowering tax rates. Beyond economic reform, a new party should push for improved public education. For that purpose, too, economic gains for the poor are all-important, tending, as they would, to improve the physical environment of families, upgrade student behavior and performance, and yield greater political clout to those who now have little.New laws make the major national parties no longer a prime source of direct funding for candidates (though "soft" money flows profusely from contributors through state parties for the benefit of, if not directly to, their candidates). The party image is no longer necessarily vital to them and can even be damaging. Television, more than party, yields personal and political identification; but TV campaigning costs big money and candidates, not the party, must raise most of it themselves. For these reasons, modern political parties obviously have less cohesiveness and power than they once had, making a third party more plausible. And to the extent that TV exposure can be paid for, it can quickly improve the prospects for a new party or an independent candidacy.These developments are already encouraging the gradual breakdown of the two-party system; and Republican successes in 1994 were a practical disaster for black representation in Congress. The Black Caucus in the House is now part of the minority, faces an unsympathetic majority, is no longer funded by public money and, though most caucus members were re-elected, has had to relinquish three committee chairmanships, seventeen subcommittee chairmanships and the accompanying staff resources.Knowledgeable African-Americans see both parties exploiting white racial bias for political advantage. With good reason, they question whether the Democratic Party is not more concerned with recapturing a big share of the white Southern and white male vote than with furthering the interests of African-Americans. Certain statistics are graphic: The percentage of blacks living in poverty was three times that of whites in 1959, for instance; the percentage of blacks living in poverty was still three times that of whites in 1989, despite consistent black support for Democrats.A wholesale black flight to the Republicans is not in the cards; only 8 percent of voting blacks went Republican in all of 1994's House races. But in a recent survey of 1,206 randomly selected African-Americans, Michael Dawson of the University of Chicago and Ronald Brown of Wayne State University found fully half favoring the formation of a black third party. Another poll, by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press (now the Pew Research Center), reported strong third-party sentiment by 46 percent of black respondents and 54 percent of Hispanics.Traditionalists will argue, as I have in other circumstances, that third parties never seem to break the hold of the two-party system on voters. This argument is powerfully underpinned by the history of third parties' failures to win office or to survive but is undermined by changing political circumstances wrought by TV and weakened mainstream parties. And it ignores the profound effect third parties often have on the other parties.The most graphic evidence of the latter function was provided by George Wallace. His backlash, anti-integration presidential campaigns in the sixties and early seventies and his personal magnetism galvanized millions of disgruntled white voters. Though he probably never could have won the presidency, he changed the faces of both mainstream parties, was a powerful factor in the nation's retreat from integration and both foreshadowed and facilitated the coming of a conservative era.The argument that third parties never win also overlooks one great success: the Republican Party itself. Founded in the 1850s out of frustration with the failure of the established Democrats and Whigs to cope with the slavery crisis, the Republicans first contended for the presidency in 1856. Failing then, the new party gained strength as the Whigs withered away, and won in 1860 with Abraham Lincoln as its presidential nominee primarily because the Democrats split into three factions, allowing Lincoln to slip into the White House with only 39 percent of the popular vote.A new party, however, is hard to visualize without a leader of scintillating personality and temperament. But the F.D.R. who was to bring the New Deal was not easily discerned in the amiable Governor of New York who sought the presidency in 1932. In 1980 Ronald Reagan was an involuntarily retired movie actor who talked of "killer trees" and of whom the old Hollywood mogul Jack Warner had once declared, on hearing of Reagan's candidacy for governor: "No, no! James Stewart for Governor! Ronald Reagan for his best friend!"So who knows where or when or how another such unlikely leader might appear at the head of a new party promising opportunity to the poor, even to lost souls in the inner city? Not the opportunity to get rich, or necessarily to rise to the middle class, certainly not to eliminate all distinctions between rich and poor -- only the opportunity to become self-supporting, useful and respected citizens with a stake in community and country.That opportunity, surely the minimum promise of America, is what is most grievously lacked by many African-Americans, many members of other minority groups and millions of whites. Only a new party, formed to create that opportunity, made up principally of those to be offered it, can advance the cause of these virtually forgotten Americans. Only a new party will devote its best minds and its best efforts to their interests. And only a new party's political determination and dedicated votes can see to it that everyone else pays attention.

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